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Despite four years of recording inactivity and five months of delays, Auburn Lull's Begin Civil Twilight makes it seem as though the time that passed between their previous album, Cast from the Platform (2004), and this one didn't actually happen. The Michigan space-rock scene, which peaked around 1999 before fading from view, prided stasis both in its music and its musical evolution, keeping that gossamer guitar-meets-electronics sound suspended in a kind of indie rock formaldehyde while dozens of other genres took center stage. Even scene-founders Mahogany tried other things, branching out into hipster rock with decidedly mixed results. So hearing Auburn Lull pick up pretty much where they left off on Cast from the Platform can feel like receiving a call from an old friend, one you didn't realize you missed until hearing the voice come through over the wires.
Nine years after their debut and high-water mark Alone I Admire, Auburn Lull show no signs of entropy in the studio. If anything, their sound is richer in the hills and more delicate in the valleys than it has ever been--a seeming impossibility when their previous songs have been some of the most confoundingly mellifluous in indie rock. Their instrumental setup is astonishing: bi-amped speakers, microphones set up all around the room, and more delay pedals and reverberation processors than you can shake a stick at. Mahogany singer/guitarist Andrew Prinz--Auburn Lull's producer since the very beginning--edits and edits the proceedings, then runs them through a 16-channel mixer to achieve a broad range of dynamics. Thankfully, Prinz still knows how to produce this lushly symphonic band even as his main act has grown increasingly stark, and his touch (and equipment) helps to leach away sharp edges and undue noise. Auburn Lull may call themselves "sound collagists," but Begin Civil Twilight is much more of a melting pot than a patchwork, where sounds bleed together such that it's difficult to tell what's a guitar, what's a violin, what's a bass, or even what's a drum.
This melting pot aesthetic seeps through the entirety of the record, but it reaches its apotheosis at "Grange Arcade," a song that is (in my words to a friend) "so beautiful, it should be illegal." Clean, repeated guitar strums lay down the melody at the start of the track, but when layer upon layer of creamy strings take it over, something unbelievable happens: The strumming loses its audible melodic component while retaining its rhythmic properties, becoming one with the drums that gallop languidly yet martially beneath the music. It gets better. Vocalist Sean Heenan begins to sing a verse that moves in waves along the strings' sustained current, turning a showcase for pure sound into a lullaby. I have no idea what he's saying, but he sings in familiar cadences that allow you to fill in the blanks according to the emotion he conveys. But the coup de grâce doesn't arrive until the very last moments, when the music fades and all that's left is a steady kick-drum thumping out a faint house beat that we didn't even know was there, propelling the song forward at an almost subliminal level.
It's Auburn Lull's new preoccupation with movement that sets Begin Civil Twilight slightly apart from the rest of their catalogue, despite the uniformly similar sound. Auburn Lull songs have always been beautiful--no question about that--but that beauty often came in the form of shape shifting ambience or tracks that revolved around a single motif without progressing. Begin Civil Twilight is comprised almost entirely of songs, in the verse-chorus-verse sense of the word, that don't end in the same place they begin. "November's Long Shadows" is one of their best, an elegant waltz in the vein of Beach House's Devotion that gives a Codeine-era slowcore song some gorgeously out-of-focus production. "Arc of an Outsider" begins very similarly to one of the highlights on Alone I Admire, "Blur My Thoughts Again," but the angelic and auspicious opening suggests that this song is actually going to go somewhere. And then it does.
Auburn Lull's (incremental) evolution into song-based territory is welcome, but Begin Civil Twilight falls short when the band gets too literal. "Broken Heroes" is essentially slowcore qua slowcore, with Heenan and an unidentified female vocalist imitating Alan and Mimi Sparhawk over a melody that never achieves liftoff. Both "Coasts" and "Light Through the Canopy" suffer as a result of Heenan's voice unencumbered; it fits the music wonderfully when lent the Prinz production treatment, but it isn't terribly sonorous on its own and reveals Heenan's limited range.
Three mediocre songs to about seven outstanding ones is still a ratio that leaves Begin Civil Twilight as one of Auburn Lull's best records, and is all the better for its sonic contiguity with the rest of the band's discography. Thirteen years after their formation, Auburn Lull haven't lost sight of what's plain gorgeous despite space rock's lack of vogue in 2008. There's nothing inherently "late-'90s" about anything they create; after all, how can something that hits all of the brain's pleasure centers ever go stale? There are changes on this album but that's not the point; we return to Auburn Lull because they present and embody a singular sound, reflecting natural terrestrial phenomena through morphing textures and tectonic melodies while their space rock peers just focus on space. Twilight ends up being a pitch-perfect reference point for this record: It's a period of flux, but for a few brief moments it's possible to marvel at it as though it could stretch on for hours. Likewise, Begin Civil Twilight is always moving, but Auburn Lull present the illusion of stillness so that we may step inside and immerse ourselves in the album's myriad wonders. It's a beautiful thing.
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Somewhat heavily pronounced and uncomplicated basslines wind their way through the first quarter of the tracks on "Begin Civil Twilight", Auburn Lull's third full-length release, yet they don't provide an anchoring point for any of these cuts. And this is largely due to the fact that the band's mosaic-like approach to composition, in which typical features that are universally associated with tracks unfolding in a traditionally linear fashion are deconstructed, especially with regard to how their respective instruments are employed.
Though the band boasts three guitarists (among whom duties on bass guitar and synthesizers are shared) and a percussionist, the instrumentation doesn't unfold according to conventional peaks and valleys, but instead is layered in a floating bed of ambience created by guitars that are heavily processed through the effects rack of each guitarist, complemented by massive, sustained tones produced both by strings and synthesizers, percussive instruments used to create atmosphere rather than serve as an anchor or timekeeping force, and miked to produce an overlayered, cyclical, saturative sound that swells in level of amplitude rather than magnitude. You're not going to hear a track by Auburn Lull building from a moderate tempo toward an explosive crescendo. There's a sense of trough and crest in their sound, but they're not brought to bear by ratcheting up any sort of intensity.
Over the course of the decade that elapsed between their first release ("Alone I Admire") and this one their sound has not evolved in any sort of significantly altered fashion. As a result, "Begin Civil Twilight" received unwelcome criticism from more than a couple of reviewers who believed that the band's choice to continue to root their sound within a pattern of movement in stasis meant that it was beginning to stagnate creatively. And I , for one, really can't agree with that assessment. It's my strong opinion that Auburn Lull is continuing to refine their sound on this release.
And if the first CD was recorded in a fashion that sounded as if what was emerging from playback was beamed from the most remote corner of the universe through the recesses of a transversable dimension that amplifies it with enormous depth upon its exit, then imagine you're at the direct intersection of its escape route with regard to how much it resonates on "Begin Civil Twilight". The massive, overlapping, singular tones created by the percussive flourishes, chiming bells, strings,layers of synthesizers, and heavily processed guitar create an even richer texture here, thanks to the painstaking attentiveness to detail designed to isolate and tease the most intimate, infinite level of atmosphere out of each note from the respective instruments played on this release. And on this CD, contrary to negative feedback from other critics, each track is on the cusp of resolving itself into at least the formative strructure of a song. Witness Sean Heenan's vocals, recorded with extreme clarity, and rising well above the mix. On several tracks he's joined by a guest female vocalist, and their harmonizing remains afloat above the glacially cascading, swelling swirl of sound, that, coupled with the presence of sensitively-strummed acoustic guitars on others, blends to create to a meditative sense of blissful transcendence. Check out the middle sequence of tracks, especially "Grange Arcade", "Civil Twilight", "Axis Nears" and "November's Long Shadows" for cuts that flirt with a sense of universal wistfulness, but shimmer with a dream-like, opiated intensity. Listen to it once and you will be addicted. I promise!